In the early dimness of predawn, white mist hangs cold and close in the damp air, firming or fading as it passes slowly over the edges of stone or tree. The landscape sharpens by degrees, like the lines of an ink painting against the lightening sky; and in the distance, the gray wash of the rest of the Tumbledown Mountains cuts a hazy silhouette straight through the horizon, almost pale enough to be mistaken for jagged cloud cover.
Under her heavy clothing, Seer’s skin is slick with exertion and a heavy, liquid ache pulses from her back to her thighs to her hands, stiffening her gloved fingers and cramping the arches of her cold feet. The thin, flexible soles of her shoes find easy purchase on the choppy face of the mountain, but an hour has passed, and her endurance is waning. Another ten minutes, perhaps twenty. Her pack shifts against her shoulder when her fingers slip, throwing her balance, but she muscles through it and her pace doesn’t slow.
The stars are still out, but have begun to retreat in great numbers, and the ragged crescent of the moon is swiftly losing form to the imminence of the rising sun. At long last, breath hovering in the air before her like a spirit, Seer hoists her body up and over the lip of the scooped-out mountain top, slipping a little down the shallow bowl of the summit. Like many of the Tumbledowns, this mountain does not peak in the regular way; rather, the center sinks below the crowned edge as though a bite has been taken off the top. Unlike many, the nadir of this mountaintop has gathered the shadows like water, has cradled them into the cave entrance set in the rock like a well.
The smooth stones bordering the cave gleam like tarnished silver, almost bright against the depthless black shadows just inside. It pulls at her like a sinkhole, like a tear in the regular order of the natural world. She resists, and takes her breath, and then she listens.
It’s always been loudest when there were storms, as though striving to be heard above the clamor, and in the past it has preceded disasters of both sky and of sea. It has rung out before earthquakes, and murmured during the harmless tremors of distant shifting bodies. And it has sighed melodies into the absolute quiet of early morning, even when Seer wasn’t listening for it as hard as she could.
But almost two months ago, it had stopped completely. So she had waited, and listened, and packed for a long camp, and listened, and trained her body, and listened. And when the voice came back, the soft stutter of a funeral dirge, for the first time, Seer had followed it.
The sky lightens. The shadows deepen. Her sweat dries.
She stretches carefully. She pulls her torches to the top of her pack, and one to hand with her mirrored lantern. She swallows a mouthful of water, and breaks apart three of the thick-petaled, coin-sized dried forest flowers with her teeth to stave off early twinges of hunger.
When the voice comes, she feels calmed by it, and sure, and resolved. She feels both hardened and weightless.
But then the melody rises. And, like the mist that has fallen away to reveal the surrounding lands, the words have taken form.
...gilded, furrowed, witless brow
the truth benighting whispers now...
Her heart seizes and a high cold writhes through her body.
...amid the sleeting shimmered storm
the witless wrath takes wicked form...
Seer squares her shoulders. Allows herself to be beckoned inside.